The Contender

Why a Washington Post reporter traded the Capitol beat for a ringside seat

ONE DAY IN 1971 when I was 28 years old a hot apricot pit fell into my lap. It flipped out of my dessert saucer as I ate lunch with my bosses Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, and its now-deceased publisher, Katharine Graham. I was the goalpost, so to speak, and they were on the sidelines, one at each elbow. I’d seen trouble ahead as soon as an otherwise kindly server dished a hot apricot into my saucer. Never before had I been served anything so foreign, and I had no idea how to eat it. As I looked for clues from Bradlee and Graham, I made a wrong move with my spoon and the pit popped into my lap like an enemy grenade.

I knew I should do something, but what? As Graham and Bradlee pretended they weren’t watching, the pit chomped its way through my career like Pac-man. After too many moments it finally occurred to me that I should pick up the pit with my fingers and place it in the saucer, which I did. But full recovery took many years. Each time I replayed the event in my mind it made me acutely aware that my father belonged to the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen union and I’d graduated from Southern Illinois University — one of those directional schools that had been shaped out of a state-run teachers college.

It’s difficult to convey how imposing Graham and Bradlee were to me at the time. Graham was like Katharine Hepburn on one of her best days — stately, sophisticated, and, I thought, utterly unapproachable. Bradlee was exactly what he appeared to be — a Brahmin prince with talent. He used to classify his employees into two groups: losers and pains in the ass. Most days he preferred the pains in the ass.

If there is such a thing as a newspaper genius, Bradlee was it. He had to make dozens of tough decisions daily, and there was no time to appoint committees. Over and over, he decided correctly. He embraced that day-to-day pressure, and at night he would hit the Washington social scene with every hair in place. Although he was an aristocrat down to his toes, his New England family lost its money in the crash of 1929. Subsequently, his father sat around the house in a tie with no place to go, a kind of male version of Blanche DuBois, but he depended on the kindness of relatives instead of strangers.

I knew that Bradlee, a Harvard grad, had served as a wartime officer on a Navy destroyer, spoke French, and probably played all the upper-class sports in prep school. Some years earlier in his career, he’d placed representatives of Newsweek and the Post into the same room and made a match. Although his finder’s fee was never disclosed, for the rest of his life he could buy tailored suits and holiday wherever he liked.

As a reporter I had already managed to deal with senators, leading entertainers, and other celebrities. But I’d never worked for any of them. Besides, they were all imitations compared to Bradlee. I had never known anyone remotely like him, and he scared the hell out of me.

Graham and Bradlee were having lunch with me and two or three other reporters as part of some kind of rotation, but I don’t think everyone on staff was part of the rotation. I don’t know precisely why I was picked. Clearly they were making mental notes on our future. We were in a private area of the Post building, where Graham had a suite of rooms that included a kitchen. Everything was done by servants in white uniforms. Everything smelled good and expensive.

Another reporter at the table had been hired around the same time as I was. A privileged WASP Yalie, he demanded to know from Bradlee why the Post wasn’t being recycled. He cut through all those imposing surroundings like a razor. Neither subservient nor obnoxious, he made Bradlee comfortable. They talked together like two old chums. I know it sounds odd, but at the time I wasn’t quite sure what recycling even was, so I had to stay out of the conversation and hope no one would try to include me. Recycling materials for use later was one of those issues taken up by people who had the leisure to think about such matters. During college I had spent my summers in Chicago working as a switchman for the Illinois Central Railroad. I remember wondering how college students registering African American voters in the South could spend entire summers without pulling down a paycheck. But it sounded far more enticing than dodging a runaway boxcar in a lonely freight yard at 2 a.m.

Back in Chicago, my father, Sidney Goldman, had owned a small grocery, but it went under after he became chronically ill with heart disease. He subsequently was employed as a butcher, but jobs were sporadic because he could no longer lift big sides of beef. He had grown up in Lithuania. As an infant he came down with some kind of pox that savaged even his eyeballs. His parents couldn’t afford a doctor, so they took him to a folk healer instead. He remained blind until the age of 4, when the pox mysteriously went away. As a young man he’d escaped Lithuania to avoid serving in the army of a nation that he considered hopelessly anti-Semitic.

When my mother, Shirley Balaban, was 13, she and her older sister Sonia fled their Russian village in the middle of the night after a Christian friend warned my grandfather of an imminent pogrom. My mother and Aunt Sonia somehow made it to America but never saw their parents again. This was our family’s personal experience with a dictatorship of the proletariat. My parents loved America with no less passion than Ensign Ben Bradlee, who crammed all his courses at Harvard into three years so he could get into the war. My dad always called the government “Uncle Sam,” speaking of it as a living, breathing, kindly entity.

Southern Illinois University provided me with an excellent education, but my degree didn’t add up to much at the Post, where at least half my co-workers were Ivy Leaguers. I grew up with friends who would see something they liked in a store window and just break the glass and grab it. They didn’t even warn me, and I’d have to run like hell. When I was a teenager we used to steal our winter coats from rich kids at the University of Chicago.

My first newspaper, The Kansas City Star, was a wonderful training ground. We were all keenly aware that Hemingway had been a reporter there before he joined the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy. The newsroom teemed with fascinating characters. My city editor had played a jazz trumpet during the ’20s. Like so many entertainers of the time, he became friends with the mob guys who supplied the booze and owned many of the nightclubs. He introduced me to 12-year-old Scotch. Our hangout was a bar owned by a tough old guy with a dry wit who’d earned the name Speed during Prohibition because he manned the shotgun on bootlegging runs.

After putting the paper to bed we’d sit in Speed’s in coats and ties and greet a steady stream of other regulars — TV news people, hoods who always minded their manners in Speed’s, and politicians. One was a nattily dressed probate judge who’d buy a round as soon as he came through the door. In Missouri, if someone died without a will, the probate judge would get a piece of the estate. “These drinks come courtesy of all those widows and orphans,” the city editor would say, and the judge would just laugh.

Young women thought I had a cool job. It made me feel like Alan Ladd. I actually wore a trench coat. My specialty, if I had one, was writing feature stories about people in lower socioeconomic circumstances. When I’d been on staff nearly three years, a reader suggested that I learn what it was like to try reentering society after a term at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. The editors liked the idea, and I agreed to do it. With the cooperation of prison officials, I roamed around the prison one day to get a feel for what ex-cons left behind. This included the old, broken-down gym where inmate Sonny Liston learned to box.

Wearing the same work clothes given to departing cons, I left Jefferson City with the typical $50 farewell stipend, minus the price of a Greyhound ticket to Kansas City. Posing as an ex-con, I looked for a job at the state employment office and day labor agencies, stayed in a flop hotel where the beds were so filthy I elected to sleep on the floor, ate in shabby diners, and finally found a job busing dishes in a cafeteria. Throughout the experience, not one person smiled or spoke a kind word to me. When I got home, showered, and returned to the office, I wrote a story that was given huge play and made a big hit around town.

I sent the story to the Post, along with some others. Metropolitan editor Harry Rosenfeld loved the ex-con story. He invited me out for interviews. During my 10 minutes with Bradlee, he was neither friendly nor hostile. He wanted to know the last book I’d read. He finally concluded our session by saying, “Hell, if Harry wants you, I guess he can have you.”

I didn’t read this as a ringing endorsement. But I also recalled that he and many of the others loved the idea that I’d worked as a switchman, a steelworker, and a cab driver.

At one point I was gang-interviewed by several higher-ups. Playing good cop, bad cop, they alternated sweetness and challenge. Then Andrew Barnes, a Harvard grad who would later become chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times, looked up from my rŽsumŽ and said, “Southern Illinois University. What was that like?” He asked it the same way one might ask a Watusi tribesman what it’s like to drink blood from the veins of cattle. As I stammered out some kind of response, Harry interrupted with another question to kill the tension.

So at the age of 27, I became a Washington Post reporter. But the paper didn’t roll out a red carpet for new reporters. My immediate superior, Bart Barnes, was a Yalie who wouldn’t give me much to do, and I knew if I couldn’t put out something impressive during the six-month probationary period I’d be let go. One day I came back from the District of Columbia jail with notes I’d taken on an alcoholic inmate. I knew I could draft it into something. Barnes didn’t even want to hear about it. “You’ve got three inches,” he told me. “We’re swamped with good stories today.” I realized that for reasons known only to him, he was steering me straight into the six-month junk heap.

Earlier I’d heard that Leonard Downie Jr., the assistant metropolitan editor, had been a terrific writer before turning editor. In fact, he was a boy genius with two books under his belt by the time he was 22. Taking a big chance, I went over Barnes’ head to Downie and told him that I had the makings of an excellent feature story, that Barnes wouldn’t let me write it, and that it would be dead after today. For all I knew, Downie was Barnes’ best friend and this would earn me my last kick out the door. “Okay, write 16 inches and I’ll look at it,” he said, “but I don’t promise anything.” Next morning the story and accompanying photo were played prominently on the front of the Metro section. I’d come off the bench to score.

Bradlee called people like me “wordsmiths,” his way of disparaging and complimenting someone at the same time. He wasn’t much of a stylist himself, and he made his career by getting the right information and putting it together fast. But he knew he needed feature writers like me, Tom Huth, Hank Burchard, Carl Bernstein, and (Bradlee’s future wife) Sally Quinn. We were condiments he served with the main dish. The incident with Barnes and Downie taught me the number one Post rule — get a good story. That would overcome just about any of a reporter’s faults. Famous screw-up Carl Bernstein had once left a rental car at the airport and forgotten about it. A huge bill came weeks later. But he was too good a writer to fire. Graham and Bradlee wanted to publish the greatest paper in America, and they knew they wouldn’t get there by hiring a friend’s nephew or niece. Each spot on the payroll was precious, a weapon to defeat the threat of mediocrity.

But if you didn’t butt your way toward the front of the line, you wouldn’t get there. If you weren’t aggressive, talent was of little use at the Post. During my three years there, I never met a new employee who wasn’t outstanding in some way. But many of them weren’t nimble or tough enough to smash through the impediments and were let go after six months.

Once my editors learned I might turn moths into butterflies, they listened to me more carefully. For a while I even got to cover the House of Representatives. Everyone took my calls because I was a Washington Post reporter. Yet all this time I felt an inner anguish I could neither understand nor extinguish. I was surrounded by reporters, male and female, who were younger versions of Bradlee — supersophisticated, very capable people who dropped conversational tidbits about kicking back at the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard, who knew all about wines and fabrics and lakes in Italy. They carried cloth handkerchiefs and could distinguish one school tie from another.

I quickly understood that my clothes and manner of speaking, even the food I ordered in restaurants, were hopelessly pedestrian. I had thought I’d graduate seamlessly into the middle class, but at the Post I learned I was a clumsy imposter. I could fool neither those around me nor myself. Other younger employees could find mentors in the upper reaches of the Post to help them through difficulties, but I had no idea how to do any of that. It took six months for Henry Higgins to mold Eliza Doolittle into a duchess. If a Higgins was around, I had no idea how to find him. I didn’t even know I should be looking.

Much later, after I left the Post, I gradually came to understand more about my experience. There’s something called the imposter syndrome. When people advance quickly, they can create a gap between how others see them and how they see themselves. They believe they’re protecting the secret of terrible inadequacies and are in constant fear they will be unmasked. It’s quite common among, for example, world-famous boxers, who generally come from the lowest socioeconomic stratum. When they suddenly start earning millions, they feel unworthy.

WHEN I DECIDED to leave the Post, the editors didn’t understand it. People resigned, of course, but always to go on to something better — to a high-paying PR gig or a column or a think thank. Not me. While journalists from all over the world were beating at the door, I was just walking away. Sensing a personal problem, they offered me a leave of absence to get my thoughts together. No thanks, I said, diving into an empty pool. I couldn’t endure any more hot apricot pits. It wasn’t too much later that I found myself working as a roofer in Aspen, Colorado, carrying buckets of hot tar up a ladder.

Eventually I would work my way back into journalism and find the niche I should have been looking for many years earlier. I became a boxing writer. I learned that ethics-challenged insiders like Don King are not the essence of prizefighting. They’re just jackals nipping at the edges. Prizefighters themselves are, for the most part, some of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve known. Though they typically come from a delinquent background, the nearly impossible demands of their training regimen drain them of hostility outside the ring and turn them into gentle warriors, sometimes witty, often wise.

Regular interaction with them helped me understand myself. Should an apricot fall in my lap again, I’m confident I could react reasonably well. But I don’t beat myself up over the choices I’ve made. I doubt many of us are happy with every decision we’ve reached when life presented us with a fork in the road. That’s why we identify with Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy, who cries in the rear of a New York taxi that he could have had class, he could have been a contender.

Ivan G. Goldman is a columnist for The Ring, a magazine about boxing. This article is adapted from his book in progress, Crazy Money: My Trip Through the Galaxy with Investor’s Business Daily. Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review (Jan./Feb. 2005). Subscriptions: $27.95/yr. (6 issues) from Journalism Building, 2950 Broadway, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027;

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